(Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany A, February 12, 2017, Matthew 5:21-37 and Deuteronomy 30:15-20)
As I read our Scripture lessons for today, I’m pretty sure God isn’t too happy with many of God’s people right now. In our lesson from Deuteronomy, Moses lays out the choices God’s people face in every generation: “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.” To the Israelites perched on the threshold of the Promised Land, Moses’ words serve as both promise and warning. The promise: If the people walk in God’s ways and follow the commandments, loving, obeying, and holding fast to God, they will flourish in their new homeland. The warning: If, on the other hand, they allow themselves to be lured away from God by the shiny new idols of their neighbors, they will bring destruction and death upon themselves…. From where you and I sit, we know that the Israelites often failed to make the right choice. While they were still in the wilderness, they chose the Golden Calf. Later, after they’d crossed into the Promised Land, they defied the will of God by insisting on having a king. Throughout history they worshipped Yahweh with their lips, but the god that held their hearts captive and dictated their actions was the god of wealth, aka “Mammon….” That’s why Yahweh kept sending prophets to speak the hard truth the people didn’t want to hear: the truth that they were bringing destruction and death upon themselves by turning away from God’s way of love and mercy.
My friends, the biblical witness teaches us that God’s people have often refused to listen to the prophets, because they didn’t like the message. In particular, the leaders refused to listen, because they didn’t want to turn away from their false gods of wealth and power and turn back to the one true God. They knew that turning back to God would mean giving up their positions of privilege. So, instead, they chose to listen to the false prophets, who told them exactly what they wanted to hear: Time after time, the false prophets lied to the leaders of God’s people, assuring them that everything would be okay—assuring them that they were right and that the message of prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah was false…. Turning to the New Testament, we see a similar thing happening in Jesus’ day: The leaders of God’s people choose to listen to those who tell them what they want to hear: namely, that they’re on the right path and that they can achieve their own salvation by strictly following the letter of the law. Over and over in the gospels, we see Jesus calling out the scribes and Pharisees, who pride themselves on their ability to “earn” their way into God’s good graces by keeping the commandments in a very strict, but narrow sense. Jesus calls them out because they do only the bare minimum, adhering to all the “thou shalt nots,” while failing to go the extra mile in loving and caring for their neighbors in need…. Because they’re so busy following the letter of the law and counting their money, the religious leaders have no love for the upstart Jesus, and they reject his call to turn back to the way of God…..
The end of last week’s gospel lesson serves as a sort of springboard for today’s lesson: Last week we heard Jesus say that he’s come NOT to abolish the law, but rather to fulfill it. So, in today’s text, which is also part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus appears as the new Moses, reinterpreting the Commandments to give his disciples the 2.0 version. Here it quickly becomes evident that Jesus wants more from his followers, because he wants more for us: Simply put, Jesus wants us to have abundant life…. That’s why he calls you and me to go beyond the letter of “thou shalt not” and embrace the spirit of “thou shalt”: a love ethic that actively seeks the wellbeing of others. In a nutshell, we’re to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. (Hmm…where have we heard that before?!)… J In laying out his love ethic, Jesus makes it very clear that it’s not enough to avoid literally murdering someone; you and I must also be careful that our attitudes, words, and deeds don’t kill our neighbor’s spirit. In fact, Jesus calls us to go even further: We’re to do everything in our power to reconcile with our neighbors and to promote their well-being. To say it anther way, in all we say and do, we’re to share with them the gift of new life that is ours through Jesus Christ…. It’s worth noting that both Moses and Jesus address the whole community in their teachings; we know this because they use the plural form of “you,” as in “y’all!…” So, here Jesus is calling all his disciples to a higher standard of righteousness, because the Kingdom of God isn’t so much about our individual morality in following the letter of the law. The Kingdom of God is more about the community’s capacity for encouraging and holding each other accountable as we engage in God’s work of healing and reconciling this world….
My friends, when I look around me, I’m deeply troubled by the divisions I see, and I think God must be deeply troubled, too. Our communities are fracturing and God’s creation is groaning because too many of us have chosen death and adversity by running after the false gods of wealth and power. Even the very fabric of the church, which is the Body of Christ here on earth, is being ripped apart, as many of us refuse to listen to each other in love, choosing instead to lash out and call each other “fools” or worse. From talking with my local colleagues and from reading the comments on the ELCA clergy Facebook page, I know this is happening everywhere, and the divisions seem to be growing deeper and wider. For example, this past Friday, when our own Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service posted a short video clip about a Syrian family of four that has succeeded in acclimating here in the United States, I was shocked to read comments that said, “It’s shameful to use children in that way….” My friends, I was saddened that people would immediately presume that the story of refugees fleeing a war-torn region to make a life for themselves was a lie. Whatever happened to the Eighth Commandment’s call to “put the best construction on what our neighbor says and does?!…” Whatever happened God’s call to welcome the stranger, because our ancestors were once strangers in a strange land?… Sadly, it seems we’d all rather be “right” than “righteous…..” Sadly, it seems that in our fear we’ve wandered away from the promises of God and put our faith in other “gods”: human leaders, wealth, and power. Sadly, it seems that instead of turning toward each other to solve our problems, God’s children have turned on each other, seeking scapegoats for the problems that confront all of us….
…And yet, as God’s people, you and I dare not lose hope, and we dare not give up, because God never gives up on us!… So, today, as in every age, there is Good News, because God is faithful, and with God all things are possible!… Even as the fractures and fissures grow between us, the Word of our God continues to call us out of our silos of separateness…. God is calling every single one of us to come to our senses and come together, so that we may come home to God…. My friends, seeking forgiveness from our sisters and brothers isn’t always easy, but it’s always necessary, because God’s law of love requires it. Indeed, the commandment to love God and love our neighbor is never easy, because this commandment invites us into relationship with the living God, who wants to be part of every part of our lives!… Our Sunday morning worship is only the beginning. Today—right here and now–God gathers us together in community to nourish and strengthen us, so that God can send us back out into the world to continue Christ’s work of healing and proclaiming the Good News of God’s love for all people and for the whole creation…. Sisters and brothers, as our world faces the challenges of climate change, disease, terror, and tribalism, the task of carrying on Christ’s work has never been more urgent than it is in our day…. As I was preparing this sermon, the words the great 20th-century poet W. H. Auden wrote on the eve of World War II kept ringing in my ears, “We must love one another or die….” My friends, today God has set before us life and prosperity, death and adversity. May we choose life, so that we and our descendants may live…. May we choose love, because the very life of the world depends on it…. Thanks be to God for the gift of love that calls us back to new life! Amen.